Speech by Federal Foreign Minster Heiko Maas at the virtual conference “Human Rights in the Era of AI: Europe as an international standard setter for Artificial Intelligence”

20.01.2021 - Speech

A man with two faces. That’s how the Romans depicted Janus – their god of duality. He symbolised the fact that most things in life come with a bright and a dark side.

Like Janus, our digital age has two faces: new technologies further human progress. But they also create risks for our values and democratic societies.

That is particularly true for artificial intelligence:

  • Artificial intelligence boosts economic growth. But military use of artificial intelligence could unleash autonomous weapons systems that kill without human control.
  • Artificial intelligence is helping us fight the pandemic. It’s speeding up the development of vaccines and potential treatments. But health monitoring tools are also used by authoritarian states to expand mass surveillance – in China and beyond.
  • Social networks use artificial intelligence to optimise our timelines and to connect us with friends. But such AI applications can also reinforce online “bubbles”, increase polarisation and destabilise democracy.

The violence at the Capitol in Washington shocked us all. However, it didn’t come as a surprise.

For years, social networks gave President Trump a stage for spreading lies and hate. In fact, their business model is based on polarisation. Then, in a surprising move, they banned him from their platforms.

Both approaches raise serious questions – for our democracies, for human rights and for the way we want to debate and live together.

One thing is clear: We cannot simply leave it to algorithms or CEOs in Silicon Valley to define the line between freedom of speech and criminal hate speech.

Instead, it is for democratic parliaments and governments to decide – based on the rule of law and human rights.

Most leading digital platforms are finally acknowledging this need for public regulation.

That was not yet the case in 2018, when we created rules for social networks to fight hate crime and disinformation here in Germany.

But such national regulation is simply not enough. The internet is global – and so are the crimes and offences committed on it. We need multilateral cooperation to set international standards.

That is not an easy task. Great power rivalry has led to a new geopolitics of bits and bytes. We see two poles of power emerging:

On one side, the Chinese digital model, which harnesses technology for state surveillance and repression.

On the other, Silicon Valley with its excessive market orientation and big tech monopolies, which have recently come under scrutiny even in the US.

As Europeans, we have no interest in digital bipolarity.

We are open to working with partners around the world to ensure that technology does not erode but reinforces democracy.

And I’m hopeful that Joe Biden will be a strong partner in this.

But we shouldn’t wait for Washington. Our ambition must be to continue building our own European digital model that

  • puts humans at the centre,
  • remains open to the world and
  • protects our values and democracy.

Applied to artificial intelligence, this means:

First, Europe must develop its own capabilities. The new EU budget and the Recovery Fund have therefore earmarked 200 billion euro for digitalisation, including artificial intelligence.

Second, we must set standards for human-centred artificial intelligence. Such European standards can create benchmarks worldwide. With the European Convention on Human Rights and other legal instruments, we have a strong legal framework in place.

How to apply this framework to artificial intelligence with new and specific rules is the question we are discussing today:

  • Artificial intelligence is very complex. That is why we need to secure human control over algorithms – to ensure accountability and build users’ trust.
  • Artificial intelligence can have biases. Facial recognition technology is less reliable for people who have darker skin, for example. We must make sure AI does not increase, but fights discrimination.
  • Artificial intelligence and tracking technology used by companies and governments is a reality. But we need strict limits to protect privacy.
  • And, finally, artificial intelligence use by social networks can fuel polarisation by creating “echo chambers”. Therefore, we need joint rules against extremism and hate speech online.

On all these issues, the Council of Europe is a vital standard setter, in close cooperation with the European Union.

During our Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, we want to further strengthen that role.

The feasibility study on international legal regulation of artificial intelligence, adopted in December, was a very important step. I’m sure that this conference will be another one.

Thank you very much!


Top of page